In Luke’s Gospel, this is the last recorded appearance of Jesus inside of the walls of a synagogue. I am not able to ask Luke why this is so, nor can I even second guess him legitimately, but I am always free to speculate and to conjecture and to make stuff up. And that is exactly what I am going to do this morning. One of the characteristic themes of Jesus’ ministry is that people are always more important than rules and regulations, even if those rules and regulations are sacred and holy. This passage certainly illustrates that very clearly, and I strongly suspect that Luke fully intends for us to understand that Jesus intentionally created a conflict in this last recorded worship service that he attended before his crucifixion. And of course, the conflict is between sacred and holy rules and regulations, versus the absolute importance of meeting human need. This is how Luke wanted us to understand his Jesus. Jesus’ final act in a worship service was to disrupt it completely, and to teach something new about the importance of all human beings.
At first, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that anything is amiss. Jesus has once again, been invited to be the speaker at a synagogue service. Luke doesn’t tell us where this synagogue is located, and that’s probably because what happened inside of it is far more important than the community in which it was gathered. And the service going on in the synagogue was probably just as normal as the service going on right now, right here, inside of good old, Thomaston Baptist Church.
But Luke says, “Just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” And I want to know, just when was “Just then?” Had she been there the whole time? Did she arrive late? Was this in the middle of Jesus’ teaching? Did she interrupt him? Or is “Just then” the “when” when Jesus happened to notice her, or that she somehow drew his attention? I don’t know; pick one. Someday we’ll get to ask her, “Just when was ‘Just then?”‘ But whenever it was, when she and Jesus met eyes, that was when things began to become undone in the worship service. That was when things began to fall apart, because as soon as Jesus noticed her, the entire focus of the worship service was suddenly shifted to her.
But this was not necessarily a good thing. Because of her deformity, she was a bit of an outsider. The people there most likely did not want attention drawn to her, and I am quite sure that she did not want much attention either. I suspect that after being crippled up for so long, that she knew her place. She knew how to behave in situations like this, and that meant staying quietly out of the way. When people are broken and hurting, they often get set aside or ignored by those around them. I’m not sure that we do this intentionally or maliciously, I think it just happens. Now of course church is an entirely different world from the one in which we normally live, so this kind of thing should never happen here. No one who shows up here should ever be set aside for any reason. Jesus clearly demonstrates this truth by his own behavior. Jesus did not draw the kind of distinctions between people that we are prone to draw. All persons, male, female, normally abled, differently abled, mobility challenged, mentally challenged, whatever labels that we want to apply, are all meaningless to Jesus. Jesus shared his gifts of compassion and healing with all persons without any discrimination. God grant that we would all learn from the lavish compassion of our Lord, and then practice it as freely as he practiced it. God would be glorified in the process, and people would be known by their character, and not by the labels that we place on them.
I have often wondered about Jesus’ strategy here. Luke tells us that this woman was bent over and quite unable to stand up. Luke doesn’t say anything about pain, but it is hard to imagine that she could be pain free. Why didn’t Jesus just walk over to her, take her by the hands, and gently lift her to a standing position? Why in the world did he make her hobble her way over to his side? Where is his compassion?
Jesus almost never misses an opportunity to take advantage of a teachable moment. The people in the synagogue need to know that this woman is very important to them, even as a broken person. And apparently, very few of them have managed to realize this, at least not yet. And I understand that, because broken people are often marginalized even by the most well intentioned people. By calling this woman to come to him, Jesus is causing her to become the central focus of every single person in that synagogue. Nobody can pretend that she does not exist. By calling this woman to center stage, Jesus is compassionately re-integrating her into the fellowship of the synagogue. Jesus is making her as important, even in her brokenness as every other person there. I trust that this is a powerful lesson for all of us.
And then, finally, after she has managed to struggle her way to Jesus’ side, he speaks the words of healing to her. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” A couple of very important things are probably happening here. So far, Jesus hasn’t touched her at all. He hasn’t laid a hand on her, he hasn’t healed her body. Listen carefully to what Jesus says: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” What ailment? She’s still bent over and quite unable to stand up. In verse eleven, we learn something about the cause of her affliction. Luke says that this woman had a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. As much as we might wish to deny it, spirit induced illness is still very much with us, even today. The human creature is not a machine that can be repaired by a mechanic, even one very adept at replacing broken parts. We are living, breathing spirits. And so I am convinced that Jesus set her free from the spirit that had kept her in bondage all those years. But there’s something else that’s also been keeping her in bondage, and that is the certain fact that she has been set aside and excluded not only by her culture, but also by the members of her synagogue. Jesus has set her free from the bonds of being excluded; he has untied her, and set her loose so that she can use the gifts that God has given to her. This is the whole reason that Jesus placed her front and center in the first place.
So now, having been set free from her ailment, having been released from the spirit that held her captive, and having been healed of the pain and sorrow of being excluded and set aside, one would expect this woman to be dancing with joy. And she obviously is in her spirit, but her body is still horribly broken. And so, Jesus reached out and touched her. And she stood up straight and began to praise God, most likely in a very loud voice. Please try to imagine what your own reaction might have been had Jesus done the same thing for you. Even the world’s strictest, most lemon-sucking Baptist would lose control over this. This lady is proclaiming the good news of the glory of God. She’s free of all that has bound her, and she’s really letting loose.
But look out. Not everyone is praising God. Someone else is losing control, but not in a good way. The leader of the synagogue has not only lost control of his worship service, but he’s also losing control of his temper. And so he interrupts all of the praise and the worship, and he reminds everybody about the rules that have just been broken. And he’s having a hard time doing it though, because everyone is so caught up in praise and wonder over what God has just done in their midst, that nobody is listening. He’s a voice shouting in the wilderness. But he doesn’t give up. He says, over and over again, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” And you know what? He’s one hundred percent correct. It is wrong for anyone to heal anybody on the sabbath. The synagogue ruler has every right to say what he’s saying. Under the old rules, healing somebody on the Sabbath qualifies as work, even if it is the work of God. And there is no work allowed on the Sabbath.
But in this case the ruler of the synagogue is so right that he’s dead wrong. Now I know that that sounds like an oxymoron. How can anybody be so right, so as to be absolutely wrong? Well, we need to listen to Jesus. And here’s what Jesus says: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
Jesus has just given everybody something new to think about. He’s given everyone a new way to look at the old and accepted but truly, holy and sacred rules. Here’s the deal: It is unlawful to bring water to your animals on the Sabbath. It is unlawful to heal a human being on the Sabbath. It is however, quite alright to untie your animal on the Sabbath and lead it to water so that it can drink. This is important, because it would be unconscionable to let your animals go a whole day without refreshment. It would be inhumane. And if “inhumane” is a term that we can use in reference to animals, what term might be available for us for use in reference to people? Jesus demonstrates that it ought to be quite alright to treat people humanely. In so many words Jesus says to the synagogue ruler, you wouldn’t let your animals go 24 hours without the refreshment that they need, why then, would you deny this woman, one more moment, the refreshment that she needs? I’ve simply untied her! That’s all I’ve done. I’ve loosed her from the bond of Satan; I’ve set her free. I’ve given her the water of life.
I don’t know what became of this synagogue ruler. Did Jesus transform or change this man’s heart, or did the ruler of the synagogue hold fast to being correct? I suspect that he preferred his correctness. But in doing so, he missed, or worse, intentionally ignored an important lesson. And I suspect this, because Jesus called this woman a daughter of Abraham. That’s actually a very stunning title. Abraham has many sons, but a daughter of Abraham is a designation that only Jesus can make. It is unknown in the rest of the Scriptures. But the implication of this designation is even more stunning. In calling this woman a daughter of Abraham, Jesus is affirming that she is a child of the covenant; a child of God. And, on the other hand, Jesus is strongly implying that the ruler of the synagogue, because he is clinging to his correctness, is neither a son of Abraham, nor a son of the covenant, and most frightening, and maybe even especially, not even a son of God. And he’s not these things because he won’t acknowledge the works of God with praise. He has excluded himself. He has made himself an outsider. And sadly, he is an outsider because he prefers to be bound by the rules. And because he is bound by the rules, he is also bound by Satan. God grant that all of us can see clearly enough to be free. Let us never be crippled by our correctness.